Highland Woodworking
James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints
by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney
Review by J. Norman Reid

James Krenov is a man who, to woodworkers at least, needs no introduction. And yet, the life of this iconic cabinetmaker and teacher contains far more richness than is generally understood. Though he seldom spoke in detail about his upbringing and the influences that led him to working in wood, there was a time when Krenov toyed with the idea of an autobiography. It would, no doubt, have been a fascinating addendum to what his writings reveal about the inside of his mind. But it was not to be. Fortunately, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney has done the next best thing by providing a richly detailed exposition of Krenov's life and work in this book, James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints.

This book, drawing on a rich supply of materials provided by the Krenov family, is replete with fascinating details and surprising findings about Krenov's life. Krenov's long period of production from his Swedish basement workshop created the impression that he was, in fact, Swedish. But he was born in Siberia of exiled Russian parents, reared in Alaska and Seattle, and only relocated to Sweden after laboring in American shipyards during World War II. There he worked at dreary factory jobs in the winters, reserving the summer months for a vagabond life in the northern countryside until he met — by chance, it turns out — his life partner Britta.

It was his marriage and impending fatherhood that led him to seek out a stable and satisfying career. He chanced to see a piece of furniture by Carl Malmsten, leader of the Arts and Crafts movement in Sweden, in a store window. He was so attracted by the work that he applied to study with Malmsten. Though he was no woodworker at the time, his experience with building boats in Seattle enabled him to make rapid progress. Soon he set up shop for himself, working from a poorly equipped basement workshop. Business was barely profitable, not enough to support a family. Britta, who was employed, provided the financial resources for the family, something she continued to do for a quarter of a century.

Working in his home shop, rarely with associates and never with an assistant, he slowly evolved his own style and his ethic of working to perfection. His practice was to use power tools such as a bandsaw and jointer-planer for the initial rough work on lumber as a labor-saving device. But all his fine finishing was achieved with hand tools, often of his own making.

Over time, he began having successes in Sweden, participating in several major exhibitions. This led ultimately to work and teaching assignments in the U.S. One — a year spent alongside Wendell Castle — began well but ended in disagreement with Castle's preference for creating sculptured artworks from stacked wood. It shaped Krenov's lifelong preference for conservative cabinetmaking designs emphasizing function versus art in wood.

As time passed, America beckoned. Several more American connections followed: teaching assignments at RIT and a brief stint at Boston University among them. But his wife's work and his daughters' preference to stay in Sweden prevented him from leaving that country.

Krenov's mother had hoped he'd be a writer, and during this period he wrote a number of things, including a fictional travelogue of Italy and numerous woodworking articles. Then came the first of his woodworking books, A Cabinetmakers Notebook. This book was not expected to top the charts, but it hit the market at an unexpectedly good time and struck a chord with a woodworking community hungry for his emphasis on slow, careful, quality hand work. His international reputation rose quickly.

After his youngest daughter left home and Britta retired, he was at last free to relocate to a more welcoming environment in the U.S. He chose a location in Fort Bragg, California. By this time he had developed considerable teaching experience and this aided in starting the woodworking school at the College of the Redwoods. Gaffney details the process by which the school came to be and the many arrangements needed to bring it into reality.

Now at midlife, his emphasis shifted. While he continued to create furniture, he tended to limit himself to a single form, cabinets with legs, though their details varied from one piece to the next. His main focus for the next 20 years would be teaching at the school, to which many eager students, attracted by exposure to his writings, were drawn. His reputation grew during his time in California and he was the recipient of many honors. Gaffney's account follows Krenov through these years as a teacher, where he was often highly inspiring, sometimes irascible, and always an exacting critic of his students' work and his fellow instructors' teaching abilities.

In relating his story, Gaffney probes Krenov's psyche, his attitudes, his preferences. Gaffney, who himself was a student at the Krenov School after Krenov's departure, offers a sympathetic biography of this remarkable cabinetmaker. The book concludes with a significant gallery of Krenov's work.

This beautifully produced book is hardbound with a slipcover. It is richly detailed with both color and black-and-white photos and drawings, many from the Krenov family's extensive resources. Altogether, they flesh out a picture of the man, his life, and his work.

Any woodworker interested in the history of the craft will want to own this book, as will anyone who's admired Krenov's writing, his work, and his philosophy and approach to woodworking. This impressive volume will be a valuable addition to any woodworker's collection.

Find out more and purchase James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints
at Highland Woodworking

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, photographer and woodworking instructor living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and two cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes: All You Need to Know to Get Started Planing by Hand, and co-owner of Shenandoah Tool Works. He can be reached by email at jnreid45@gmail.com.

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